by Robert Johnson
Amanda looked about anxiously, shifting her weight from one foot to the other as she waited in the commissary line. She'd noticed the big red box the day before but had hesitated. She didn't know a single convict who had one but she knew it was just what she needed. She was desperate. Anger was eating at her, her moods were turning sour, and her loneliness was taking on a life of its own. So here she was, placing her order.
"One Cell Buddy, please," she spoke in what she hoped was a calm, measured tone.
"Which model?" asked the inmate behind the counter, barely looking up.
"Which model?" Amanda asked, in a higher voice than she liked, sounding a bit girly. Amanda was thrown off balance for a moment. She didn't know Cell Buddies came in models and she didn't want to sound like a girl, though of course she was a girl, and in fact a girl once much sought after in the cell blocks. She paused. A small line was forming behind her.
"What do ya' mean, which model?" Amanda said, in a deeper voice, the one she cultivated for public exchanges in prison. "I want—I don't know, the standard goddam model."
"Okay, Okay," said the inmate, raising her hands, palms up. "Just doing my job."
"Black or white?" the inmate continued. "We're out of the mixed-race model."
Amanda paused, then frowned. Speaking carefully, "They make mixed-race Cell Buddies?"
"Brown. That's your standard Brown Cell Buddy. We do all the races. This is equal-opportunity stuff."
After a pause, the counter woman said, snapping her fingers—and her hips-rhythmically, "You know, supply and demand, even in the can."
Amanda by now had begun to sweat. Evidently there were others in the House with Cell Buddies. There'd been a run on Brown Buddies, she thought. And what was the deal with this bitch behind the counter? She'd wanted this to be a hit-and-run thing but it was becoming a full-on conversation.
"White, for christsakes, white." Amanda was white, and she figured anybody in prison who crossed the color line on inflatable cell mates was looking for trouble.
"Papers?" The inmate now had her hands resting easily on the counter.
Amanda just stared at her, keeping herself under control.
"Adoption papers, hon." The inmate spoke as if adoption papers were an obvious consideration for a convict in the market for a Cell Buddy.
"They come with adoption papers," she continued, as if Amanda were a child. "You can fill in the name," snapping her fingers again, "and pop it in a frame."
"Frame?" A hint of nervousness had crept back into Amanda's voice. She considered turning on her heels and simply running back to her cell but was too embarrassed to move.
"We've got frames, all kinda frames. You're supposed to frame the papers. It's like a respect thing."
The woman behind the counter retrieved a big red box marked CB-White and handed it across to Amanda, together with a frame and adoption papers. Amanda gathered her haul, marked her signature on the commissary account line, then walked straight back the way she'd come. She was careful to keep the brightly colored package close to her body, hoping to avoid anyone she knew as she worked her way up the steps to her third-tier cell. When she got to the cell she looked both ways, then entered quickly, as if she were returning from a regular day at the prison canteen, eager to get her goodies put securely away, out of the view of thieves-women who moved in packs, grabbing sweets and treats and sometimes even TV sets and selling them on the black market.
But this was different, Amanda knew, really different. Snacks from the commissary were one thing; an inflatable Cell Buddy was decidedly another.
The woman at the commissary had been cool about it, like it was an order at a restaurant-but the give and take at the counter had put Amanda on edge. The whole business seemed sketchy. What did the girls in the line think about all this? Papers? Frames? Keeping one eye on the cell door, Amanda opened the box and pulled out the folded plastic figure, gently removing the sealed packaging, complete with a two-part pump system she assembled after a few minutes of difficulty. (Amanda was pretty handy but sometimes struggled with instructions.) Now with her back to the tier, hiding the plastic figure from view, Amanda slowly pumped up her Cell Buddy until it was fully inflated. She then stood back, admiring her new friend.
Amanda couldn't help but think that her Cell Buddy cut a striking figure. A two-and-a-half foot torso, the Cell Buddy came standard with movable arms and a swivel head. The Cell Buddy was the brainchild of a psychiatrist who believed that convicts needed emotional support to help them get through their prison days. "Even convicts need love," she'd said, "prison is a lonely place, especially for women." The arms were a special feature. "They are expressly made long," the psychiatrist had said, "long enough to wrap around the prisoner's body in a secure embrace."
Wardens and administrators affiliated with the prison system thought the Cell Buddy was a joke. They assumed all convicts crave sex, not love; that a plastic figure with no orifices or appendages (Cell Buddies are smooth all over) would be a loser in the prison market. Amanda read this in a newsletter while she was waiting for her annual physical. "Easy for them to laugh," she'd thought, but the shrink was serious and for damn sure Amanda was serious. As far as Amanda was concerned, the psychiatrist was right on the money. Amanda was lonely, and she was frightened, and at times she was just plain mad at the world. There was no way to handle those emotions in prison without help.
That's where her Cell Buddy would come in, Amanda thought. Someone to listen; someone to make her cell a home.
Amanda knew that some of worst things that can happen to a woman in prison typically happened in her cell, at the hands of a cell mate she once loved, or thought she'd loved. Domestic abuse was a hidden epidemic in prison, Amanda knew from the echoes of grief reverberating up and down the tiers. "Who'd believe it?" she once told a visitor, early in her prison term, before she had any inkling of what lay ahead for her. "We don't have men here but we still got wife-beating!" The visitor looked at her like she was talking in riddles. Amanda dropped the subject.
Amanda had joked about getting a Cell Buddy for years, years she spent with her last convict cell mate, Danielle, aka Dan the Man or simply Dan. The butch girls always often took male variants of their given names, to go with their big tattoos and bigger muscles, not to mention the cold stares they cultivated for their sojourns in the prison yard, where they'd shamelessly flaunt their male bona fides, walking slow and threatening, glaring out at the world, daring women to make their day. At first, Amanda loved Dan like a sister loves a tough, protective older brother. Nothing sexual; just sheer admiration. Dan made Amanda feel secure. Safety is an illusion in life, and especially in prison, but the fact is,
Dan made Amanda feel safe. In prison, that is no small thing.
Back in the early days of their relationship, Dan often said, "Amanda, when I'm gone, get yourself a Cell Buddy. Don't leave the cell without it. Why be lonely when you can have a rubber homey." Dan was a bit of a homegrown poet, if you could be generous with your notion of poetry.
Dan was also, as it turned out, a bit of a predator. He was, in the words of the women on the cell blocks, a smooth operator-patient, willing to wait out his prey. Dan knew that Amanda needed him, knew she couldn't live on her own, knew she would be easy pickings for the other tough butch cons. Dan carefully cultivated Amanda's trust, then made his move. Dan the Man seduced Amanda with the classic prison line-it's either me, or everybody.
Amanda didn't see it coming, and in fairness to her, the process was subtle. You've got to give Dan credit; he knew what he was about. First there were requests for small favors (tidying Dan's part of the cell), then tentative requests for shows of support and affection, like a back rub after a hard day. "Hey, baby, that feels good, just like that, right." Then, gradually, Dan began giving orders-first for little things, maybe with an apologetic smile, things Amanda would have done anyway, like warming up his coffee. Soon Dan demanded anything and everything he desired. Like a kind of perverted Biblical patriarch, Dan the Man wanted Dominion over Amanda in all things. He wanted sex (and on his terms), but even more he wanted her reduced to abject servitude. Dan wanted his bed made, he wanted his laundry done, he wanted his food served warm while he lay naked, looking at Amanda like she was a piece of meat. He wanted to use Amada as a punching bag on bad days, and there are a lot bad days in the Big House. When you come right down to it, Dan wanted Amanda to be his slave, his chattel to have and to hold and to abuse at will.
And Amanda was Dan's slave, meek and docile, pretty much right up until she killed him.
There were warning signs, but this time it was Dan who didn't see it coming. He didn't see Amanda's grief or her anguish or her rage, masked by an increasingly plastic, fixed smile. "Sure Dan, right away. Whatever you say." Always with the big smile, the too-big smile you might have found on an American slave plantation back in the day. Dan was no historian, and besides he thought of Amanda as a slave, so he took Amanda's behavior in stride, as if it were his due. Dan definitely didn't notice the small rebellions or the furtive looks as Amanda prepared his bed for him at lights out. Amanda's lips would be pursed, her eyes ever so slightly narrowed in distaste, the bed never perfectly made, the coffee a tad bitter. Dan didn't catch any of this. And he didn't see the shank coming, the one Amanda plunged deep into his back while he slept.
Shank. Dan had been insistent about calling a homemade prison knife a shank. "It's a shank, Amanda, not a shiv. A shiv is gay." He'd walk the yard with Amanda and say, "See that bitch, the skank with the shank? Watch out for her." Shank, shiv, knife—whatever it was, it took residence in Dan's body, and Amanda was on her own, alone in the abusive home she'd shared with Dan, in the prison he'd made her personal hell.
The prison at night is a scary place. It's as if the cell blocks have a life of their own, populated by the haunted spirits of prisoners past. Amanda sensed these presences, thought she heard low, murmuring voices in the night, felt cool breezes brush against her skin. Somehow, beneath the cries and the rage and the ruin, Amanda sensed a deeper hurt, the hurt of pure loss, the hurt that tells you the one thing you never want to hear-that the world is hard and cold and you are alone, completely alone. There is you, and there is suffering, and there is loss.
At these moments, wrestling with a sense of dread, Amanda would clutch her Buddy close, glad for his companionship. Buddy, that's what she called him. Short and sweet, like the little man himself. Amanda needed to hold Buddy, needed the touch. The words of a poem she'd read kept running through her head. "O'er the cell a mark still lingers," it started, "Of where a convict's bloodied fingers..." As Amanda drifted off to sleep, the poem unfurled in her mind like a sail on a breezy spring day:
"Could make stone speak of life's hard ends
With words that shine like darkling gems
I was here
I am a woman
I bleed, therefore I am..."
Am what? For a moment, Amanda wasn't sure. Then it came to her: Alive.
"Alive, in a manner of speaking
It's raw, sweet freedom I'm desperately seeking
A prison cell's a coffin reeking
Of dreams gone sour
Of life died by the hour
Of death by decree
Until you're set free
"In this life or the next."
Amanda pulled Buddy closer, seeking warmth in his plastic embrace, hoping to shed the notion that her cell was in fact a tomb and that one day it wouldn't open and she'd be trapped there for eternity. "A prison cell's a coffin reeking..."
Trapped with Buddy. Well, that was something.
Amanda hated to let the air out of Buddy each morning, but she couldn't take him outside the cell in his fully expanded condition. Prison has its strange byways-hell, she'd even read about a prison called Strangeways-but there are limits. Some of the cons looked and dressed like men, even attractive men, for heaven's sake, but toting a Cell Buddy crossed the line. People didn't seem to notice that Amanda had this folded plastic friend with her wherever went, tucked under her arm. At least, no one said anything. Amanda wasn't sure, but she thought that perhaps the rest of the tier figured she'd lost it and might be dangerous. "Mess with Buddy," she'd said under her breath, as much a plea as a threat, "and you'll come up bloody." Some of Dan's poetry had evidently rubbed off on Amanda.
Still, Amanda thought she heard the sniggers and she imagined the insults. Boy Toy, that sort of thing. The other girls just didn't get it, Amanda figured, or didn't want to get it. A bunch of them had their own Cell Buddies, she knew, or else the commissary wouldn't carry them at all, let alone have different Buddies for each race. But these women evidently kept their plastic companions under wraps, afraid of what others might think. Now that she thought about it, she'd seen women with full, puffed out shirts now and again in the mess hall. Amanda had assumed they'd wrapped magazines and newspapers around their torsos, the prison's version of a shank-proof vest. Now she marveled at their ingenuity. Carrying their Buddies around in public, hidden in plain sight!
Amanda was less discrete because she didn't care. Prison was death; Buddy was life. You had to live, if you could. You didn't have to live well, but you had to live. That's just the way it is. Some people have to go to prison to learn that. Whatever else Amanda learned in prison, she learned she needed Buddy to live. So she carried Buddy out in the open, deflated but right out there for anyone who cared to look.
At night, back in the cell, Amanda would prop Buddy up with a book in his hands, tilt Buddy's swivel head down slightly so Buddy could read, and carefully position Buddy in the middle of the bed, where he would be stable. Buddy had once taken a fall from the side of the bed, picking up a pretty bad scratch in the process when he hit the rough concrete floor. Amanda wasn't going to let that happen again.
"Feel alright, Buddy?" she'd ask solicitously.
Buddy would nod, or so it seemed to Amanda.
"Been a rough day, Bud?" Amanda would ask without much feeling. She was tired at the end of her prison day, if for no other reason than that she was protective of Buddy and worried that if some bad-ass bitch assaulted them, Buddy would be history. And if Buddy was history, Amanda would be history, too.
Buddy seemed oblivious.
Amanda, comforted by Buddy's silence, which she interpreted as his agreeable invitation for her to chat, would sometimes review the events of their day. "What'd you think of that Aryan 'ho, Bud? Me, I thought she'd lose it when you brushed up against her."
Buddy's head appeared to nod, however slightly.
"I mean, it's not like you're black or white. You're pure, Bud, almost translucent. You're your own race, know what I mean?"
Buddy shined in the glow of the overhead light, which had just then been turned on as the sun set outside the prison.
"I ain't no racist," Amanda continued, perhaps a bit defensively, "but I'm more comfortable with my own. That's just normal."
Amanda moved Buddy to the far side of the cell, just below the framed adoption papers, shielded from the view of passing convicts.
There were days that Amanda was alright and figured she was going to make it. Other days, she had her doubts. Some days, though, it seemed like she'd lost it for good. On the bad days, her temper had a life of its own. She thought her occasional explosions were normal, at least as normal as putting people in cages and leaving them to fend for themselves for years on end, sometimes with nothing more than a Cell Buddy for companionship.
Amanda had discovered a deep well of anger inside her after she'd killed Dan. She didn't even remember killing him, exactly, all she remembered was watching someone who looked a lot like her plunging the shank into Dan's back, over and over again, eyes wide, teeth bared. Like an animal.
And she had been an animal to Dan, a beast of burden. Dan was gone but the burden was still there, the burden of hurt and barely suppressed fury. Dan's abuse lived on, right inside her. The rank injustice of this made her blood boil.
At first, having Buddy cooled her hate, this toxic gift from Dan, but nothing good lasts for long in prison. Prison is like an inferno, Amanda thought, burning up everything good in a painful orgy of self-inflicted punishment. One night, the inferno raged out of control.
Amanda could make excuses for her episodes. Had Dan called his explosions episodes? Had she learned this from Dan?
He had a laundry list of excuses, when he bothered to make excuses, and now she did, too. She hadn't gotten a letter in ages. An old woman had stumbled and knocked the deflated Buddy from her arms, getting Buddy smeared in grease from the mess hall. That night, the cell lamp had burned out, so Amanda couldn't read and talk to Buddy on the schedule to which they'd become accustomed.
And somehow, Amanda couldn't really explain it, the smell of grease and the soft light of the cell at twilight, rays of a rising moon streaming through the bars of the cell window, had made Amanda amorous. She snuggled close to Buddy, drinking in his scent, redolent of fried food but appealing nonetheless, flushing and growing excited almost against her will.
"Buddy, Buddy," Amanda moaned, slowly letting go and liking it, moving easily to an inner rhythm as old as life itself but long denied to Amanda during her many years in confinement. Dan had raped her; that was violence, not sex. But this, she thought, this was something different, something good. Almost instinctively, Amanda rolled Buddy onto his back, looking at the little half-man through heavy-lidded eyes suffused with passion. "Buddy…"
Then Buddy seemed to mock her.
It was crazy, Amanda knew, looking back, but Buddy seemed to look at her with a vacant, rejecting stare, as if to say,
"Can't you do anything right? I'm a friend, just a friend. Clean me up and let me get some rest."
Amanda rubbed Buddy's back and shoulders, hoping to relax the taut figure. No response, just mute, rejecting silence.
"Go fuck yourself," Amanda had yelled, unable to control herself.
Buddy seemed to sneer. To sneer!
Admittedly, Buddy came with a manufacturing defect that gave the lines forming his mouth a slightly irregular downward cast, which looked like a frown or a sneer. A bit like Elvis's famous sneer, actually. Buddy's sneer, if it was a sneer, was accentuated by the dusky light in the cell that fateful night. It spelled rejection in letters too big for Amanda to ignore.
And so Amanda wondered, not for the first time, was she a loser, even in this ersatz love on which she'd hoped to live out her prison days? When you came right down to it, could Buddy be interested, really interested, in a lonely, pathetic convict like her? Even her name, Amanda, seemed girly and a little pathetic, more fitting for a cheerleader than a self-respecting felon.
And where did one go when a relationship with a Cell Buddy went south? I mean, how embarrassing is that? It's not like you can drag your little friend to counseling and expect to hold your head up on the tier or in the prison yard. "Hi, my name is Amanda. Buddy and I are in counseling. We hope to work things out." Not happening, not in this woman's prison.
That sneer, if it was a sneer, set Amanda off. She tore the cell apart, she ranted and screamed, she banged her fists on the steel cell door, she cried tears of impotent rage. And then she slammed Buddy into the wall, tearing his plastic skin, letting the air escape and leaving Buddy a broken figure, crumpled in the corner of a cell that looked like a war zone.
"I hate you," Amanda had screamed. "You stupid plastic faggot, you can go to hell for all I care!"
Later, shocked at what she had done, Amanda sought forgiveness. "It'll never happen again, Bud, I swear. Trust me." Even as she spoke, she heard Dan's words in her head. "It'll never happen again, Babe, I swear. Trust me."
Wiping tears from her eyes, Amanda tried to pump Buddy back up. The little body would expand a bit but then the air would escape with a whoosh. Same with the head, which had a separate air chamber that had been damaged. Amanda vowed to fix Buddy and start their relationship fresh. They'd be friends, dear friends, she said to himself, and see where things went from there. "We'll give it a go, Bud. We can make it work."
"We can make it work," Dan would say, until he decided that it worked for him and that was all that mattered.
Amanda knew it would be hard to find the supplies needed to make Buddy right. And Amanda couldn't help but wonder, deep in her heart, whether Buddy would ever trust her. And whether she, Amanda, could ever be there for Buddy, when the chips were down and the desolation of a prison night held them both in its grasp.
"It'll be alright, Bud," Amanda said, as she snuggled up against the now rumpled plastic form that was her Cell Buddy, speaking in a soft, breathy tone, the one she used when she hoped she really meant what she said. "We're in this together."
Buddy shuddered at the word, or perhaps it was just the way Amanda gripped him tight as she drifted off into a fitful sleep.
Robert Johnson is a criminologist who writes fiction on the side. He is the author of Poetic Justice: Reflections on the Big House, the Death House, and the American Way of Justice and Burnt Offerings: Poems on Crime and Punishment. His writings have appeared in Admit2, The American Review, Black Bear Review, The National Catholic Reporter, Carnelian, CMC (Crime Media Culture), Dan River Anthology, Lifelines, Pleasant Living Magazine, Tacenda Literary Magazine, and Wild Violet. His best-known work of social science—Death Work: A Study of the Modern Execution Process—won the Outstanding Book Award of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.
Gwendolyn Waters (illustration) is a law student at the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law. After she graduates, she plans to begin a career as a criminal defense attorney.
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